Putting aside the controversy over whether a curated Portland Museum of Art Biennial honors the intentions of the Thon Endowment Fund, exhibition curator Alison Ferris was faced with a task that would inevitably upset many Maine artists who did not get the chance to submit artwork for consideration. Ferris, previous curator at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art and now at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Wisconsin, decided on a non-thematic tack guided by strength of work and inclusivity as far as geography, media, gender, race, and age are concerned. While this has resulted in a collection of impressive artworks it unfortunately lacks the thrill of many new discoveries.
There are only a few works that don’t really seem to belong in an exhibition meant to highlight The Best the state has to offer. The vast majority fits comfortably and convincingly within the Biennial’s qualitative standard. Outstanding among those is Warren Seelig’s “Shadowfield,” which employs schist scattered like an exploded landscape; Michael Kolster’s superb ambrotypes, which are lit to dramatic effect; and Caroline Lathan-Stiefel’s installation of pipe cleaners and plastic detritus, which is built up like a multi-layered painting.
Concepts of original and copy are smartly and skillfully explored through Jeffrey Clancy’s pewter recreations, and John Walker’s only but magnificent contribution, a wide-open abstraction with hints of landscape, displays a new and exciting tendency toward structure, calm and openness. Miles Spadone’s imaginative and slightly lubricious forms are surprisingly made of ceramic and urethane, and Randy Regier impresses, as always, with phenomenal imagination and craftsmanship. His retro-futuristic machine to dispel sadness is a product of complete integrity of concept and creation.
Anybody halfway familiar with the better half of Maine’s artists will encounter many familiars. The inclusion of Wabanaki basketmakers is therefore welcome, but why stop there, why treat them differently didactically, and why cram their work into an already too crowded gallery?
Among the many well-established participants, two artists whose work delights no matter how much you’ve seen of it are Lois Dodd and Dennis Pinette, curiously, two painters — Dodd for her cool eye, compositional strength and sense of color and Pinette for his romantic dystopian vision and handling of paint. The work of both seems fresher and more individualistic than much other art in the show. The big and exciting exceptions to that are Stacy Howe and Bradley Borthwick. Inspired by surrealist automatism, Howe creates tour de force drawings that combine images of seemingly randomly selected objects. These coalesce into mysterious emanations within tightly controlled compositions. Borthwick, a recent addition to the state, uses traditional working methods and materials: slate, leather, beeswax, and hardwood. Combining the same complex, undulating forms and materials in three different configurations, his sculptures evoke a sense of precarious stability grounded in weight, warmth, and support. They are earthy yet utterly sophisticated.
Although non-thematic, the Biennial’s title, “You Can’t Get There From Here,” is explained to address a common thread running through the show — basically that of the mystery and inexplicability of the artistic process. That does not do much to explain the selection of artists nor is it in any way specific to Maine. The show could equally well have been centered around the theme of tradition with solidly traditional techniques and obvious references to older art movements and subjects abounding. And tradition is at least something Maine is known for.
While the PMA continues to explore other options for its Biennial beyond the juried format, the past two iterations seem to be going in the right direction. However, more risks could be taken, a targeted call to artists could enhance a thematic show, and blatantly personal selections could inspire lively discussions about taste and subjectivity. In essence, inspiration for a more critical dialogue is needed.
“You Can’t Get There From Here: The 2015 Portland Museum of Art Biennial” | Through Jan. 3, 2016 | At the Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland | 207.775.6148 | portlandmuseum.org
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